Breast Cancer Risk Factors & Genetics
Being a woman is a beautiful thing. However, being a woman also means you’re at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, 1 in 8 American women are estimated to develop breast cancer during their lifetimes. Unfortunately, there is no way to completely prevent breast cancer, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risks.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors and Prevention Methods
There are a variety of factors that can increase your risk of breast cancer. While most of these risk factors can’t be controlled, factors that involve personal lifestyle choices can be changed. Below are some common risk factors and suggestions for lowering your risk in areas where possible:
- Age. If you are over the age of 55 you have the highest risk of developing invasive breast cancer.
- Family history of breast cancer. If any women in your immediate family have been diagnosed with breast cancer you may consider learning more about genetic testing that can be done to determine if you are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
- Birth control. Oral contraceptives have been linked to a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer. To reduce this risk, consider other forms of contraception (such as IUD or condoms).
- Dense breast tissue. If you have dense breasts, it can be harder to detect cancer on a mammogram.
- Weight. Excess body fat is associated with increased blood insulin levels and increased estrogen levels in women — both of which have been associated with breast cancer. If you’re overweight, work to change that by eating reasonable portions of healthy foods and increasing your physical activity. Talk with your doctor about what is a good plan for you.
- Alcohol consumption. The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer. To reduce your risk, the American Cancer Society recommends consuming a maximum of one alcoholic beverage per day (For women: 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor).
- Inherited gene mutations. Mutated versions of certain genes can lead to abnormal cell growth, which can lead to breast cancer (and possibly other cancers).
Knowing you’re at heightened risk is beneficial regardless of whether you possess many risk factors or only one. Fortunately, you can take charge of your health by making sure to have regular breast cancer screenings. If you do develop the disease, the earlier it’s detected, the better the likelihood of a positive outcome.
The Genetics of Breast Cancer
As mentioned above, inheriting mutated versions of certain genes can increase your chances of developing breast cancer. When it comes to breast cancer risk, the most common inherited gene changes are in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
When healthy, BRCA1 and BRCA2— human genes that produce tumor suppressor proteins— help repair damaged DNA. However, when either of these genes is mutated or altered, such that its protein product is not made or does not function correctly, DNA damage may not be repaired properly. As a result, cells are more likely to develop additional genetic alterations that can lead to cancer.
The good news is that harmful BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are relatively rare in the general population. Because of this, most experts agree that genetic testing of individuals who do not have cancer should be performed only when the person’s individual or family history suggests the possible presence of a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2.
If one or more close family members has been diagnosed with breast cancer, you may benefit from our Genetic Counseling, Prevention, and Risk Assessment Clinic to help you accurately evaluate your own cancer risk.